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Humbling Cold

(The Sage) knows he makes no fine display,
and wears rough clothes, not finery.
It is not in his expectancy of men
that they should understand his ways,
for he carries his jade within his heart.
– Tao Te Ching 70 (Rosenthal)

The short, hunched figure appeared in front of me loaded with purpose.  The weather bent us both down, compelled our gaze towards cautious feet and the treacherous lack of grip underneath them.  It was only a casual glance that saw the short red coat and hood approaching as I wondered who else might be out making their own time down the sidewalk.  A child? A friend?  Anyone I knew?

When we approached a few plodding paces apart a quick glance up saw her as an old woman.  I could not make out many details about her presence rendered trivial as we both concentrated on our chilling task, the path from here to there.  I smiled a quick “Hello!” and she said as much back as we passed, still a stranger though also a comrade in purpose. We were both anonymous in our shields against the cold that might catch up if we had stopped for any more than a word.   The weather itself had rendered us equal, distant, and humble.

Irvine Park in the Snow

Irvine Park in the Snow

The gnawing cold of Winter strikes every year in the middle of a great continent, hardly a surprise.  But the depth of it is still shocking as weeks pass by without crossing freezing.  We are all bent low by the experience even as we reasonably expect it.  The simple act of making our way takes on an air of heroism, a struggle that defines us huddled in our own cocoons to keep warm.

The woman that morning on West Seventh Street was utterly anonymous at a distance, the same as anyone else.  I could not tell if she was black or white, old or young, a friend or a stranger.  Even close up there was little of her story I could make out other than her moment was about the same as mine.  There wasn’t any time to exchange details, either.  A quick acknowledgement that we were in this together was about all either of us were capable of managing.

That reaction to the weather had to be as expected as the reality of February itself.  There isn’t much else any of us can do, other than buttoning up in a car for those with the scratch to afford it.  Once we’re on the sidewalk making time we’re all the same, equally anonymous and determined.

When it's cold, we're all in it together.

When it’s cold, we’re all in it together.

The culture of this part of the world often seems strange to those who aren’t used to it.  The assumption of equality carries over into the warmer months, the times of the year too easy to define us.  People use first names and familiar language carelessly, even when traveling abroad to places both more formal and fluid.  Where many places use language to define barriers between people even they stand rather close, the upper Midwest uses language to convey sameness and equality – to the extent we get to use language at all.

Most of the year this attitude rankles me, I have to confess.   Having come from a warmer climate with easy life but a tremendous amount of ethnic diversity, I was taught early on the value of respect.  People are addressed by “Sir” and “Ma’am” if there is any question, and family names are used until we’re told otherwise.  I’ve had to teach my kids what a culture based on respect looks like, how it operates, and how to be a part of it as if it comes from a foreign land.   It does, in fact.

Liberté, egalité, fraternité.  Yeah, that again.  It still works.

Liberté, egalité, fraternité. Yeah, that again. It still works.

That’s not to say that people around here lack respect, but that the first thought anyone has when meeting a stranger must be that they are about the same as they are.  We’re all at least equal and have roughly the same hopes and dreams.  No matter what the temperature, something about us is walking out the bighting cold along a sidewalk.

I call it my Theory of Climate and Culture, a fancy title that underlies the great humility of an annual assault by nature.  “Given time, any people will develop a culture that is defined by their climate more than anything else – no matter how sophisticated and intelligent they think they are.”

One a day well below freezing the simple act of getting somewhere shows where this culture comes from.  It’s a deep sense of humility forced on all of us by events.  We define ourselves by the thick shields wrapped tight against the cold and our the rhythm of our own feet.  We’re all the same out in this, equal in the struggle and the low moment of our day.  It takes that kind of humility to understand where it comes from.

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18 thoughts on “Humbling Cold

  1. Climate-defined culture…that’s one part of the puzzle. But I’ve lived in frigid geographies where the folks were warm, and warm climates where the reception was frosty. The prevailing ethnicity also enters the picture. Now in an area with strong German/Dutch roots, we find folks a bit distant, but it has more to do with privacy than a lack of friendliness. Interesting post.

    • Perhaps it is more about heritage than anything else. The Midwest is indeed very German, which does emphasize privacy. But you have to give me the egalitarian “we are all the same” attitude as a cold weather feature. The cold does humble us! 🙂

  2. Back on the economic front it seems like(to me) the Fed’s credibility is going down. They have have to be able to handle uncertain and somewhat mixed world economic indicators and how they have been reacting to those, over the last 14 months, in terms of statements on the inclination of where policy is heading.

    –there seems to be a view that interest rates should go up at some point, but it is not clear to me on how much they would raise it (what increment), when it would start in relation to economic conditions, and what would make them put the brake on the increase or what would make them lower the increment.

    So I would challenge Yellen supporters to defend what has been fed policy since Jan 2014.

    If it is just muddling through, then we are back to the 1970s when policy was herky jerky.
    So if we are in a type of world economic stagnation, then Yellen had better speak up on both what fiscal policy should be and what interest rate policy should be.

    • I should do a “Dashboard” update to see where we are with that. I agree that right now they tell us they are watching inflation, but does that mean that as long as inflation is low we will have low rates? It seems to. I think it is time to get out of the “liquidity trap” and have some reward for saving – as well as to put a little pressure on speculative investment based on super cheap money. Screw inflation.

  3. I don’t certainly dont think highly of a “US can go it alone” view of the domestic economy.

    We are in a much different world in terms of economics and foreign policy compared to Obama’s first term.

  4. According to Deutschebank report entitle Focus Germany, US growth for 2015 is forecast at 3.7 percent and consumer prices at 0.9 percent. EU zone figure for 2015 growth is 1.3 and consumer prices it is -0.3.

    As we know EU is the main economic and political partner for the US. If we don’t move forward together with them we will all have frowny faces ; (

    As I like to say Europe is not allowed to have wars and it is not allowed to respond in an anti cyclical fashion to recessions. We can not let Europe and Japan drift in this year, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War 2. President Obama should come up with something concrete and inspiring. He is our leader.

    We recall that President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945.

  5. Jimmie Lee Jackson (December 16, 1938–February 26, 1965)[1][2] was a civil rights activist in Marion, Alabama, and a deacon in the Baptist church. On February 18, 1965, he was beaten by troopers and shot by Alabama State Trooper James Bonard Fowler while participating in a peaceful voting rights march in his city.[3] Jackson was unarmed; he died several days later in the hospital.

  6. I like your perspective. I’ve never thought of the cold that way; perhaps because I’ve only experienced a Calgary -30 over a few days before I escaped back to the milder west coast.

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